Photo credit: Margaretta K. Mitchell
A Little Book on Form
came about because I was asked one fall to teach a class at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop on form in poetry. It made sense, of course, that at such a place there would be a course not in the history of poetry or the theory of poetry or on particular poets or periods or styles — American women modernists, French surrealism, poets of the Harlem Renaissance — but about the craft.
Still. Form? What exactly was meant by form? I looked at books. They all seemed to be about rules for how to make a sonnet, or other more unusual forms, the sestina which was a kind of intricate early Italian song form that involved ending every line of a poem in six stanzas with the same six words, which would have seemed like teaching beginning yoga students to do a handstand. I knew there had to be some other way of thinking and talking about form.
I remembered vaguely having read a book in college by a philosopher named Susanne Langer called Feeling and Form
. A lot of it was about listening to music and I didn’t remember its argument in any detail, but I remembered that the main idea was that a lot of our knowledge of the world, or our way of seeing and understanding the world, came about because we humans are pattern-discerning and symbol-making creatures at the core of our being. You hear a tune, that is, a sequence of notes, but not just a sequence of notes; at some point it seems complete — then it’s a tune. And there was a certain sensation that went with it. We didn’t necessarily describe it as knowledge but it was far more apt to stay with us in memory than a random sequence of sound not patterned in such a way as to give the sensation of shapeliness or completeness would. That was how you could tell you’d experienced a form and it had added to the store of forms you were carrying around in your head — and not just the head — rhythms, even visual rhythms, also occur in the body; they set us dancing. The tune could be playful and antic or it could be somber. It had given you a vocabulary for feeling the shape of things as you moved through the world.
That thought seemed a place to start. And around that time, because I had to address this idea in relation to poetry, I found myself thinking about sentences and their miraculous presence in our lives on an early morning in summer, the fall course still a ways off. My children and their children were visiting. I was up early, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the paper. My eldest grandson appeared, in pajamas, still squinting from sleep, and climbed onto my lap. I read him the comics for a while and — he had just begun to string together whole sentences — he said, “Grandpa, when my mom and dad get up, if they decide to go to the bakery, you can come too.” There are very artful croissants and muffins in the bakery in the little town nearby. Not only did he have dependent and main clauses down pat, he had a conditional, that he was using to enlist me as an ally in his plan. The sentence, as it unwound, wound its way to sugar. And wasn’t that rhythmic conclusion perfect? “You can come, too.” Robert Frost
used it in one of his early poems:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long — You come too.
“You come too,” though, as I hear it, is a bit more peremptory, or born of a more urgent prompting. “You can come too” — dah-de-dah-dah
— feels radiant with hope.
So I thought it was definitely a kind of radiance I was tracking, and that it had to do in poetry with the sentence and probably the relation between the sentence and the line. There was another book I’d read by a woman named Miriam Lindstrom called Children’s Art
, and I remembered a delicious sentence about children starting to draw. “The first power of art,” she’d written, “is the power of being a cause.” It made me almost remember, or at least imagine as if I were remembering, making a single line with a red crayon on one of those pieces of coarse absorbent paper they gave us in kindergarten.
What an achievement! I thought about lines of poetry that seemed radiant to me. There’s a line by John Donne
, the 17th-century priest, about falling in love:
I wonder, by my troth, what we did till we loved!
I thought it got exactly the surprise of it. And I loved the next line, too.
Were we not weaned till then?
Later in his life, when he was a bishop, he wrote a poem complaining about complexity:
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
And thinking of memorable tunes, I thought of Hamlet
’s soliloquy, the line practically everybody who reads English knows:
To be or not to be? That is the question.
Lines that stick in the mind — the exuberant irreverence of Allen Ginsberg
in the Cold War years:
America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Or Langston Hughes
in Harlem in the Depression years, listening, he wrote,
To the boogie-woogie rhythm of a dream deferred.
So that began to seem an exciting way to proceed, starting with a single line, or two lines, or four, trying to understand how rhythm, pattern, play, made tunes. I thought about a four-line poem by William Blake
, the great and eccentric Romantic visionary. Memorable four-line poems, outside nursery rhymes, are actually fairly rare in English. This is one of them:
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
For starters, the parallelism gives pleasure; it is a syntactical parallelism. And so does the small variation in the structure — the moving around of the verb to fit the bounce of the meter is a little celebration of difference. And the rhymes of course make an emphatic repetition. We count those, too — the long i of require
, the long i in gratified
, and the long i of desire
, and then the repetition of the pattern in the next stanza. This small, ordinary act of pattern-noticing is a pleasure, and so is the other simple form: ask a question, get an answer.
There’s also a sweet little Irving Berlin
lyric, two lines, that just leaves a question hanging:
What’ll I do, if you are far away
And I am blue, what’ll I do?
That song from my parent’s generation was in my head and I found myself noticing the sound play. The first phrase, What’ll I do
, has a particular rhythm, stressed syllable, unstressed syllable, unstressed syllable, stressed syllable. I’ve heard it called a cradle, because, marked, it looks like one: /_ _ /, and it’s so common to the rhythm of English speech that it functions — counting paired stressed and unstressed syllables as “feet” the way prosodists do — as a two-foot rhythmic unit, a particular small dance the language makes. Chiasmus
is the Greek name the same prosodists use for the crossing pattern —
— in the Berlin lyric. The winsomeness and humor of it has to do with the mix of the rhyme — do, you, blue, do
— and the truncation in the pattern, the skipping lilt in the cradle — what’ll I do
— then three, slow, rising iambs — And you, are far, away
and then the shorter two iambs, And I, am blue
, and then the lilt of the cradle again. And the sense of distance created by the assonance and rhyme of are far
— the human imagination making such expressive complexity in the simplest forms.
So at that point I had more or less solved for myself the problem of how to proceed. I made handouts for the class on the idea of one line, and then of two lines, of three and four. It was these handouts that became the little book on form. In the class I also asked the students to present ideas about form from others arts and crafts. One student taught us all to waltz. Another, earning his way as a pastry chef, demonstrated the construction of an apple galette. Another analyzed the structure of a computer program. We were suddenly on the scent, tracking down the shapes of a very deep magic.
÷ ÷ ÷
received both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his 2007 book of poems, Time and Materials
. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. His new book is entitled A Little Book on Form: An Exploration in the Formal Imagination of Poetry